The pungent smell of cannabis planted on this west-facing hillside in the Sonoma Valley mixed with the odors of damp volcanic soil, aromatic pine and cattle musk from a herd watching over a calf crying for its mother.
A five-person farm crew cut down the plastic trellis holding up marijuana stalks laden with dense colas of Purple Punch, among the earliest flowers to ripen at this nearly 700-plant, one-acre biodynamic cannabis plot run by Terra Luna Farms in Glen Ellen.
They cut down the stalks, piled them onto carts and wheeled them to a small truck parked at the end of the row — a haul that will ultimately end up on the shelves as flowers or infused products at SPARC’s four dispensaries in Sonoma and San Francisco counties.
Growing cannabis lawfully under the sun on the North Coast is a risky gambit for farmers, who must bear the high costs of new regulations, compete with companies growing pot in urban warehouses or larger greenhouse farms in central and southern California and confront whatever Mother Nature brings. The nearly 60,000-acre Nuns fire destroyed most of SPARC’s harvest last year, forcing the company to fill its shelves with cannabis grown elsewhere.
“Harvest last year was disrupted by the catastrophic fires,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, an organic farmer who sits on an ad hoc committee helping to shape the county’s cannabis policies. “Going forward, the harvest feels disrupted by regulatory uncertainty.”
Northern California’s world-renowned outdoor cannabis harvest has for generations run parallel to the wine grape harvest, drawing itinerant workers to the region and fueling a cash-based economy that has kept small towns and garden supply stores afloat.
Roughly 279 acres are licensed for outdoor cannabis cultivation across a five-county Northern California marijuana growing region — the Emerald Triangle counties of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity and lesser-known cannabis country in Sonoma and Lake counties, according to a Press Democrat analysis of state licensing and Sonoma County permitting data.
That translates to a legal outdoor harvest worth about $474 million a year, barring catastrophic crop loss and based on industry standards for yield and the current wholesale value of marijuana, about $500 a pound.
Still-ripening marijuana buds are secreting their most pungent essential oils of the season — odors noxious to some, appealing to others and a sign of harvest time. The earliest flowers were cut down in September and the slower- to-ripen varietals will head to the drying sheds in early November.
A fraction of the region’s cannabis growers, estimated in the tens of thousands, are making a run at growing cannabis openly and lawfully.
Erich Pearson, SPARC’s founder and executive director, said he could find a more affordable place to grow cannabis than this bucolic valley surrounded by regenerating forests and parcel after parcel of vineyards. Instead, he’s attempting to create a taste for high-end, biodynamic cannabis infused with the unique terroir of this Glen Ellen area hillside.
The Demeter biodynamic -certified acre is being grown across the property from another acre of organically grown cannabis. Both are being produced for SPARC, and Pearson said they are working with a consultant to amend the nutrient-poor soil so they can plant directly into the ground within three years.
“When I look at this, I think about the brand we’re building,” said Pearson who oversees one of the largest legally operating cannabis farms in Sonoma County.
In Sonoma County, just under 20 acres of cannabis worth about $34 million is being harvested lawfully through the agricultural department or with temporary county authorization for certain operators. In contrast, the 2017 wine grape harvest was worth $580 million across nearly 60,000 acres.
These acreages for cannabis don’t include cannabis being grown in warehouses or other indoor facilities.
Most experts agree the vast majority of California cannabis is grown outside, although a true measure is hard to come by for an industry that has not been tracked and still includes a robust black market.
New Frontier Data, a Washington, D.C.-based cannabis industry research firm, estimates roughly 90 percent of marijuana in the state is grown outside, a figure local industry experts suspect doesn’t account for the likelihood most illegal marijuana — the hardest to track — is grown indoors. And researchers believe more than 55 percent of the outdoor crop is produced for the black market.
But for legal operators, it is far more affordable — and environmentally sustainable — to grow outside rather than secure the real estate and infrastructure needed to cultivate indoors on top of the expensive fees required by counties like Sonoma, said Tawnie Logan, a Sonoma County industry consultant. Logan described this year’s harvest as “bare bones” with so few longtime cultivators allowed to grow.
Last year, a combination of major wildfires and the high costs of compliance disrupted what might have been an indicative year for the region’s sun-grown cannabis haul.
It was the first year when marijuana cultivators were required to follow new local regulations developed in advance of the state’s 2018 rollout of its rules.
Sonoma and Mendocino counties each fell short in cannabis tax revenues by about $500,000 for the 2017-18 tax year. Sonoma collected $3.4 million, while Mendocino brought in $1.3 million.
The new rules are changing the landscape of cannabis cultivation in Mendocino County, where officials have estimated at least 10,000 of the county’s 87,000 residents grew marijuana — a figure some local industry leaders think is an underestimate.
Its farmers created the well-known Emerald Cup, which started as a small, clandestine harvest festival and has grown into the country’s only cannabis contest celebrating pot grown outside, one that draws more visitors to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds than its more famous counterpart, High Times cup.
Many people who supplemented their income by growing a little pot are looking for other ways to make ends meet while others are shutting down their gardens and joining the cannabis labor workforce, said Genine Coleman, executive director of the Mendocino Appellations Project.
An unknown number of growers are “hunkering down” and sticking with the black market, she said.
The seasonal influx of workers appeared in far fewer numbers at the grocery stores and gas stations than previous years when so-called trimmigrants traveled from all over the globe to the Emerald Triangle to find work harvesting and trimming dried cannabis buds, Coleman said.
“It’s not as lucrative for trimmers as it was and people are more inclined to give jobs to locals — and locals need jobs,” said Coleman, who also serves on the boards of the California Growers Association, the Mendocino County Growers Alliance and the Mendocino County Industry Association.
It’s unclear how rural counties like Mendocino where residents have long depended on the medical marijuana and illicit markets will weather the transition from an underground industry to a corporatized and commercialized one.
“We’re in a hard place because we have been a very robust cultivation region that has been — confidentially and without any statistics — underwriting the entire county’s economy,” Coleman said. “Because of the scale of what’s going on in California, we’re not on great footing.”
The economic fallout could be catastrophic, said Hezekiah Allen, who grew up in a Humboldt County cannabis farming family and founded the California Growers Association, a statewide association and lobbying arm for cannabis cultivators.
Allen has stepped down as executive director and is launching a new enterprise called Emerald Grown, a company formed to provide resources for farming cooperatives, a type of collective enterprise allowed in the state.
The 2018 harvest “is one for the record books” for people who managed to acquire local permits and state licenses to grow, said Allen, who said farmers from all over the region are sending him photographs showing towering plants benefiting from a good weather year.
“I’m seeing big, colorful beautiful flowers with all the colors of fall and they’re sparkling and glistening with these magical cannabinoid flowers that will bring so much goodness,” Allen said. “It’s a magical time.”
Outside Glen Ellen at Terra Luna Farm, several feral cats were being cared for in a temporary cage while they adjust to the ranch off Highway 12, where farm owner Joey Ereñeta hoped they’d claim as their home and help keep rodents away.
Ereñeta, a Santa Rosa resident and lead horticulture instructor at Oaksterdam University in Oakland, helped SPARC shut down all its warehouses where the dispensary group used to grow all its cannabis, and begin its new mission to cultivate all of its product under the sun.
At the end of the rows, they’ve planted plant insectories with marigolds, nasturtiums and poppies.
Ereñeta and Pearson are in some ways outliers among cultivators trying to put stakes in the ground in Sonoma County because they are both longtime cultivators with strong financial backing through investors and the retail stores.
The margins for farming are low even for cannabis, and the fires set them back “millions” said SPARC’s Pearson, who wouldn’t put a precise number to the financial loss.
“We’re ultimately trying to create something different,” Pearson said. “We want to bring people in to see — look at how beautiful this plant is.”
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.